Friday, May 17, 2013

Black Orchid - "What do you do with a cocktail in a bath?" "Drink it, old boy. "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Black Orchid - Details

Series 19, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #121) | Previous - Next | Index

This two-parter was not well-liked by the cast and enjoys a mixed reputation at best. Where praised, it's slight praise for being a bit of whimsy, a chance enjoy a country house party in 1925 with a couple of murders to solve, and as something a little outside the norm for the series -- having virtually no science fiction elements apart from the use of the TARDIS to clear the Doctor's good name and transport some characters from the railway station back to the house where the story occurred.

Mostly though, critical reaction finds it dull, far from being a Christie-level whodunit, and we are recommended to skip it.

I find both reactions fair enough and can't fault either. Personally, it's a treat to see the Doctor play cricket and for this lot of companions to relax a bit and enjoy some cocktails and dancing. The lovely Sarah Sutton wasn't done a lot of favors by the costuming department during her time on the show, so it's nice to see her get a chance to fancy dress flapper-style. (One can't help but feel for the actresses though, clearly the weather wasn't cooperating and they probably wished they had warm coats on.) As a Wodehouse fan, I also got a smile out of the reference to an Uncle Bertie Wooster. But, unless you are a die-hard fan, these don't amount to much of a reason to watch a TV show.

Were the mystery a proper mystery instead of one where we knew who the murderer was all along, there would be a case to make for the show being able to stand on its merits, but I'm afraid all we've really got is Doctor Who characters in a period piece. Adric chowing down, the ladies dancing (when they aren't screaming and fainting *eye roll*), and a few clumsy murders to sort out.

This seems like an opportune time to argue that the show can, and should, do more of this sort of thing. (I both mean, and don't only mean, shows like "The Unicorn and the Wasp"1.) By "this sort of thing," I don't mean making a hash of a murder myster, what I'm getting at is the idea that the show's format allows for the characters to drop into other sorts of shows, genres other than sci-fi. Here, it's a whodunit, or a period drama, it can't quite settle on which. It ought to have been a better one of whatever it was, but still, it's a chance to do something besides have the Doctor be the Great and Grand Last of the Timelords Speechifying at Armies of Aliens and Entities With God-Like Powers, Striking Fear Into Their Hearts Because He Will Protect This Planet and the Universe. That character is unsustainable. It's fine in small doses for the really big events, but too large for proper drama over the long haul, and Doctor Who is in for the long haul.

Don't worry, Doctor, not *that* Master. (via tumblr)
Too often, the new series has done this sort of story by dropping the Doctor into, well, a soap. Now, there are times where that works. "Rose" kicked it all off that way, sort of. I recommend reading Sandifer's take on "Rose" for a much more in-depth analysis of the way RTD and co. played with our familiarity with different sorts of genres and narratives.

"Father's Day," "The Lodger," "The Power of Three," all drop the Doctor into bits of life that feel soap-y as well, but a little too soap-y. Those stories have more sci-fi (or fantasy) as elements, but it's really more the recurring incidence of the Doctor getting involved in the family life and relationships of his companions (if we can call Craig a "companion," which I guess we sort of can) that ties them all together, and it's a bit more than I'm fond of. Not General Hospital or Passions level soap-y, but I guess, based on the little I've seen, EastEnders-ish.

I'd prefer that the Doctor drop into a straightforward historical adventure, or, a Sherlock, or Law & Order, (not cross-over, just take the crime procedural format and make it its own) rather than straight soap. Unfortunately, reality TV (and so we get episodes like "Bad Wolf") and the new soaps are the dominant form of TV storytelling over the last decade or more, and so I suppose it's natural those would be the genres it would attempt to play with and subvert.

And the subversion's the thing. Nobody in their right mind would argue Doctor Who ought to try to be Law & Order, but I'm just enough of a TV junkie to suggest it can introduce a wild card into the format and help pull it apart and help show what makes that formula entertaining, and how it could be improved. I'm imagining the Doctor with Lenny Briscoe at a crime scene, turning the Briscoe & Curtis dynamic on its ear, but basically working to solve a murder, one with actual suspects, not the perpetrator handed to us on a silver platter as here in "Black Orchid."

1. I'm probably the last person to remark this, but, "The Unicorn and the Wasp" is, at least in set up, very similar to "Black Orchid". Same era, TUATW's 1926 vs. BO's 1925, the same sort of stumble into a party, a whodunit ensues ... I'll have re-watch that while BO is fresh in mind.

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